Middle school students have reading interests that run the gamut from Diary of a Wimpy Kid to Twilight. Sometimes as a parent it is hard to know what is age appropriate for your child. Through this blog, I will try to help parents make informed decisions about what is available in our library. I am hoping that this blog will be a resource for our parents, and that we can all work together to make our students life-long readers!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Midnight Thief

Midnight Thief
by Livia Blackburne
From the publisher:
"Growing up on Forge’s streets has taught Kyra how to stretch a coin. And when that’s not enough, her uncanny ability to scale walls and bypass guards helps her take what she needs.

But when the leader of the Assassins Guild offers Kyra a lucrative job, she hesitates. She knows how to get by on her own, and she’s not sure she wants to play by his rules. But he’s persistent—and darkly attractive—and Kyra can’t quite resist his pull.

Tristam of Brancel is a young Palace knight on a mission. After his best friend is brutally murdered by Demon Riders, a clan of vicious warriors who ride bloodthirsty wildcats, Tristam vows to take them down. But as his investigation deepens, he finds his efforts thwarted by a talented thief, one who sneaks past Palace defenses with uncanny ease.

When a fateful raid throws Kyra and Tristam together, the two enemies realize that their best chance at survival—and vengeance—might be to join forces. And as their loyalties are tested to the breaking point, they learn a startling secret about Kyra’s past that threatens to reshape both their lives.

In her arresting debut novel, Livia Blackburne creates a captivating world where intrigue prowls around every corner—and danger is a way of life."

Midnight Thief is exciting and original. I liked the characters - I was able to feel their pain, understand their motives, and hope for the best for them. I thought the world building was good, with the caveat that more gets explained in the next book (and possibly the prequel), because I did have some questions about things like the Council and the Far Lands. How do the Far Lands differ from where Tristam is from? Why is serving Forge so important to him when he's not even from there? How do the different cities work? Are they all under different leadership or combined together somehow? I don't get too excited about these kinds of things in first books because I assume the author will clear those questions up in succeeding books. In fact, I appreciate not getting too bogged down by the minutiae in the first book. I hate fact-dumping, just give me the story and explain as things go on. 

Back to the characters - I really liked the main character, Kyra. Even though she was an orphan who grew up on the streets, she still had a moral filter (well, thievery didn't factor into that, but the filter was still there) and a kind of innocence. I loved her make-shift family and how protective she was of them, and just the fact that she had someone who cared about her and for her. I'm interested to find out who her parents are and why she grew up the way she did. 
At the beginning of the book I had a hard time deciding which male character was going to be the love interest. I like to know who to root for, so that was a little jarring for me. And then I thought that there were going to be 3 different love interests and that made me mad. However, I appreciate that the love interest turned out to be obvious and that a best friend can just be a best friend and a villain can be interesting and intriguing but still remain the villain. And no insta-love! Thank you, Livia Blackburne, for not making us read the same YA tropes that we're so used to. I hope that continues into the next book. 

This is a book that the more I think about it the more I like it. If it makes that kind of impression on you, it is definitely worth the read. 

Areas of concern:
*I don't think there was any cussing. That's pretty impressive because there are a lot of intense situations.
*Very mild romance towards the end of the book. 
*Violence abounds. Assassins are at work and strange beasts are ripping apart animals and people.

Suggested Ages:
Kirkus Reviews - Ages 12-18
School Library Journal - Grades 7-10

Monday, April 18, 2016

The War That Saved My Life

The War That Saved My Life
by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
 From the publisher:
"Wall Street Journal's Best Children's Book of 2015
A Newbery Honor Book

An exceptionally moving story of triumph against all odds set during World War 2, from the acclaimed author of Jefferson’s Sons and for fans of Number the Stars.
Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.
So begins a new adventure of Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?
This masterful work of historical fiction is equal parts adventure and a moving tale of family and identity—a classic in the making."

I thought this book did an exquisite job of showing how abuse affects a child. The main character, Ada, has been horribly abused her whole life, and all readers will be relieved when she escapes and has the chance at a new life. However, life doesn't suddenly turn rosy for her. She has trouble accepting kindness and compassion and feels completely out of place. Her new guardian reads the book Alice in Wonderland to Ada and her brother, Jamie, and this is what Ada thinks:

“It was us, I thought. Jamie and me. We had fallen down a rabbit hole, fallen into Susan’s house, and nothing made sense, not at all, not anymore.” 

It is both heartbreaking and heartwarming to watch Ada's journey to finding the strength in herself. Sometimes it is 1 step forward and 2 steps back, but slowly and surely she progresses. The patience of her guardian, Susan, is remarkable, but we are also shown how taking upon herself the guardianship of 2 abused children makes Susan grow and come out of herself. I thought the ending faltered a little bit, but all in all I really enjoyed this book. It doesn't match up to my favorite WWII-child-evacuee book, which is Good Night, Mr. Tom  by Michelle Magorian, but it is a pretty respectable second place. 

Areas of concern:
*Horrible abuse of a disabled child. Sensitive readers could be very disturbed by all of it.
*A handful of British cuss words.
*There is a very subtle inference of a homosexual relationship, but I'm quite sure the targeted age group for this book won't pick up on it.

Suggested Ages:
Booklist - Grades 5-8
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 9-12

Thursday, April 7, 2016


by Tera Lynn Childs
From the publisher:
"Kenna is tired of being "normal". The only thing special about her is that she isn't special at all. Which is frustrating in a world of absolutes. Villains, like the one who killed her father, are bad. Heroes, like her mother and best friend, are good. And Kenna, unlike everyone else around her, is completely ordinary— which she hates.

She’s secretly working on an experiment that will land her a place among the Heroes, but when a Villain saves her life during a break-in at her lab, Kenna discovers there’s a whole lot of gray area when it comes to good and evil and who she can trust.. After all…not all strength comes from superpowers."

While I enjoyed the plot and characters in this book, I was very surprised and disappointed by all of the bad language in it. I have 3 different series by this author in our library and they are all really clean reads (as far as I know). When I was researching this book, I saw that Booklist had recommended it for grades 9-12 and I thought that was weird because it was Tera Lynn Childs, for heaven's sake! So I ignored Booklist and went with the other reviewers recommended ages (listed below). I'm still glad I got it for our library, but I won't recommend it as much as I would have without all the language. 

Setting the language aside, this book was an exciting ride! It started out with a bang and just kept going. I liked that the main character was "powerless" in a superhero world, but still spunky and able to take care of herself. The secondary characters were exciting and likable. I loved the superhero/villain plot. I know it has been done many times now, but it is still fun. It's actually hard to review this without giving too many things away, but I enjoyed a lot of things about it and it definitely kept my interest from the first page. It checked off several of my YA lit pet peeve boxes, but somehow I still liked it. (Predictability, insta-love, teenagers good - all adults bad...) There is quite a bit of humor in this book. I love the descriptions of Riley, the best friend's brother. He is portrayed as a blonde nitwit with a Superman complex. His superpower is flying and he wears a cape everywhere - but he swears it's just a coat. I could picture him so clearly with his perfectly coiffed hair and his ridiculously straight posture. Kind of a Dudley Do Right with a cape instead of a Mountie hat. It is nice to have that comic relief in it as there are some seriously villainous activities going on throughout. When you finish the book, you should go back and read the preface over again. It will make much more sense. As per usual with YA lit these days, it leaves you with a big cliff-hanger. Let's hope there is no middle-book slump with the next one. 

Areas of concern:
*At least 70 uses of cuss words - the most prevalent being the *s* word used around 30 times. The *f* word is only used in an acronym. There are also a few vulgar British-isms.
*There is a fair amount of violence with a scene of disturbing torture - but it wasn't very graphic.
*A couple instances of pretty intense kissing. 

Suggested Ages:
Booklist - Grades 9-12
Kirkus Reviews - Ages 12-15
School Library Journal - Grades 7-10

Friday, April 1, 2016

Jack & Louisa: Act 1

Jack & Louisa: Act 1
by Andrew Keenan-Bolger
Kate Wetherhead
From the publisher:
"Twelve-year old Jack Goodrich was a Broadway star, with two shows under his belt and a third in rehearsals. But when his voice changes suddenly, Jack and his parents leave the spotlight and move from New York City to Shaker Heights, Ohio. While Jack hopes to leave his Broadway past behind, his new neighbor refuses to let him off the hook. Louisa is a self proclaimed "musical theater nerd" and can hardly believe when an actor moves to town. What’s more, the local theater has announced auditions for her favorite show, “Into the Woods.” As the audition date looms nearer, the two are faced with difficult choices. Should Jack risk humiliation and return to the stage? Will Louisa have confidence to go it alone? And can their friendship survive all those complicated octave leaps? "

This book may not be for everyone because of all of the musical theater references that most won't get, but oh, how I loved it! If  Better Nate Than Ever, with its bad language and sexual references is too edgy for you (like it is for me), than this is the musical theater-themed book for you. I will admit to being slightly obsessed with the authors' web series Submissions Only , which is why I wanted to read Jack and Louisa, Act 1 , but even if you have never heard of authors/Broadway veterans Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Kate Wetherhead, this is still a fun read. And if you are a confirmed Musical Theater Nerd (MTN) like myself, what are you waiting for?! 

I wasn't thrilled by the characters' infatuation with Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods . In fact, if you mention that musical to anyone in our family we start singing in atonal voices, "Into the woods, into the woods, into the woods, into the woods". And yes, I do know that brands us as Broadway plebians because only the truly cultured "get" Sondheim, but I did bond with Louisa's dad in the book when they were discussing Sondheim.

"You just don't appreciate the complexity of Sondheim," I muttered.
Dad looked at me, eyebrows raised. I could tell my big words had impressed, or at least surprised him. Still, he wasn't about to give in.
"I 'appreciate the complexity' of a turbine engine," Dad said with a smirk. "THAT is complexity worth appreciating. This Sondheim stuff sounds like a record skipping." 

Amen, brother.

Aside from not liking  Into the Woods , I loved everything else about this book. The story is fun, the main characters are very likable, and the Broadway and New York references spoke to this poor, New York-deprived Colorado girl. I am lucky enough to have taken a couple of trips to New York, and this next quote from the book reminded me so much of a girl's trip I had with 2 of my daughters last year at this time. We just wanted to blend in and not look too touristy - so to accomplish that we had my son-in-law take a picture of us standing nonchalantly in Grand Central Station reading the paper and messing with our phones - mission accomplished! In this quote, Louisa just found out that her new neighbor, Jack, moved to her neighborhood in Shaker Heights, Ohio, from New York City. She got excited about that and he asked her if she had ever been there.

"To New York? Yeah, a couple times," I replied, like going to the cultural capital of the world was no big deal. Like I hadn't squealed with delight the first time I walked through Times Square, or practically fainted when I got a picture with Tony Award-winner Norbert Leo Butz in front of Schmackary's Cookies. Exposing my inner geek was a delicate process. I needed to at least attempt to be cool." 

Or maybe it reminds me of last summer when I flew to Long Island on a Tuesday for the birth of my granddaughter, told my daughter not to have the baby for another day and took the train into the city by myself on Wednesday (the baby obliged and didn't come for another couple of days). I walked from Penn Station to the Shake Shack on 8th Avenue, stood in the long line on a hot July day (while pretending to talk to someone on the phone so I looked like a "real" New Yorker), got my shake and fries and walked to the St. James Theater just down the street to go to the matinee of Something Rotten! . I was incredibly early, and as I was standing in front of the theater all by myself with a fry halfway up to my mouth, Tony Award-winner Christian Borle walked right in front of me. I'm pretty sure I stood with my mouth open and my hand holding the fry frozen in the air just watching him walk to the stage door... but it is all kind of a blur :) . So you can see why I connected to Louisa in that moment. I try not to expose my inner geek as well - and I'm not a 12 year old girl! (And yes, we are planning another girls trip to New York in the fall and Schmackary's is definitely on the docket, along with Magnolia Bakery and 16 Handles. Not that I obsessively watch broadway.com's backstage shows like The Princess Diary or Renaissance Woman - where they talk about the wonder of those places - or anything.)

So, do you have to be a Musical Theater Nerd to like this book? No, it is a sweet and fun story even if you don't get all thrilled and tingly at the Broadway/New York references. However, if you ARE an MTN, you will absolutely love it like I did. I can't wait to read Act 2! And now I have to find out which of my middle schoolers will love it as much as I did. (I do have one student named Sutton, and the first time she checked out a book I told her one of my favorite Broadway performers was named Sutton and she knew who I was talking about - that bodes well.) 

Areas of concern:
Nothing, really.  I don't remember any bad language.  Both main characters had loving, supportive families, there are no sexual references.

Suggested Ages:
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 8-12
School Library Journal - Grades 6-8